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Culture Documentary

Playing politics

(Apple TV+)

Documentary

Playing politics

Boys State offers a look at the political instincts of young Americans

Every summer, the veterans organization American Legion hosts nearly 20,000 teens in weeklong camps called Boys State. Hundreds of boys in each state run for mock political office (or did before COVID-19, at least), including the top spot of governor. Even if you’re not a political junkie, the experience seems like a lot of fun, especially as presented in the new documentary Boys State, filmed in Texas in 2018. 

You could summarize the award-winning film this way: Two liberal documentary-makers crash a conservative boys camp. Yet despite clear Democratic bias, filmmakers Jesse Moss and Amanda McBaine use a cinéma vérité style that lets the boys speak for themselves, giving viewers real insight. At times, Boys State feels relaxed or tongue-in-cheek. At other times it bursts with excitement—and testosterone—as more than a thousand raucous and rowdy 17-year-olds converge on Austin. 

Amid the chaos, McBaine and Moss focus on four boys—Steven, Robert, René, and Ben. Much of the time they portray the boys as three-dimensional people who make real moral choices. Choices like whether to lie to get ahead in their political ambitions. As Robert says, “My stance on abortion would not line up well with the guys out there at all. So I chose to pick a new stance.” Unlike in grown-up politics, here we see behind the curtain to what’s really in their hearts and minds.

Boys State contains bad language and negative role models. But we also see a clear difference between servant leadership and self-serving politicians. Progressive Steven talks with the boys across the aisle and tries to represent their views as well as his own. In contrast, the Ronald Reagan–loving conservative Ben smears his opponents with whatever dirt he can find. To get ahead, he misrepresents Steven’s stance on guns. In Ben’s mind, lying is just part of the game. 

Since the film’s August release on Apple TV+, many media outlets have focused on the boys with progressive views. In an opinion piece for The New York Times, René describes encountering racism at the camp and suggests the U.S. political system rewards such behavior. “I believe that to love America is to be as cynical about our political system as necessary until real change is made,” he writes.

But the most hopeful reflection I’ve seen comes from Ben, the Reagan fan. The film brought him face to face with his shortcomings, as he explains in an interview with the Aspen Institute: “You know, when Steven’s gun control issue came out, my first instinct was, let’s smear him on it. … Boys State was a wonderful opportunity to reflect on it and say, just because that’s how it’s been, that’s not how it should be.” 

Ben’s mature introspection and repentance feels almost shocking in our culture today. And it offers some hope God isn’t done with these boys—or our country—just yet.